We love honey bees. They are amazing insects to watch as they visit blossoms around the farm and go about their duties within their hives. Bees visit 2 million blossoms to produce each pound of honey, and an average colony can produce up to 100 pounds of honey. That’s certainly a lot of blossom visits and (importantly to us) a bunch of plant pollination. The colony is focused on preparing for winter by storing food (honey and pollen). The winter months are the worst for honey bee survival. When beekeepers get together this time of year, a common question is, “How are your bees?” The unstated question is really, “How many have you lost?”
Most folks have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The US EPA states that, “Colony Collapse Disorder is the phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen.” During the winter, bees do not hibernate; they form a cluster and keep each other warm. That means that the bees have to have a strong population going into the late fall months, plenty of food to feed them through the winter, and protection from the elements.
No one has determined with certainty the causes of CCD. What we do know is that when Verroa mites infest a hive, the colony’s health suffers. The “Varroa destructor” (what a scary, apropos name) can only reproduce in a honey bee colony. These mites reproduce by the female entering the brood cell and laying eggs on the honey bee larva. The young mites (several females and one male) develop as the bee develops, and emerge with the young bee. They attach to the body of the bee and weaken the bee by sucking hemolymph (blood), leaving open wounds and transmitting diseases and viruses, which can in turn spread through the colony like a small pandemic. To the honey bee, a Verroa mite attached to their body sucking their blood is a size comparable to a human having one or two football-sized parasites attached to our backs. That would certainly cause health issues!
Verroa mite control is essential to a disease free, thriving hive that can maintain a colony’s mass and food stores necessary to make it through the winter. Until recently, there have been few options for the organic treatment of mites. In June 2014, President Obama created a federal strategy to promote the health of honeybees and other pollinators. The President highlighted specific instructions for the EPA to expedite review of registration applications for new products targeting pests harmful to pollinators. Matching what has been legal for years in Europe, the EPA legalized the use of Oxalic Acid (OA) as a treatment for Verroa mites. OA is naturally occurring, and can be found in tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, and bell peppers.
Like all beekeepers, we struggle to manage our bees through the winter. With this resource that has proven 95% effective against Verroa mites, we’re hopeful that we can keep our honey bees thriving through the winter, ready to buzz our garden and fruit trees through the spring and summer, and healthy enough to spare us a few extra pounds of honey in the fall.